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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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By Chloe Boudjalis, February 5, 2011

Originally published by Northwestern Michigan College White Pine Press

Middle Eastern women’s rights activist to speak at NMC

Zainab Al-SuwaijZainab Al-Suwaij is the Executive Director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC). Her goal with AIC is to establish interfaith understanding and to promote civil rights in the Muslim world. Al-Suwaij has been working in Iraq to promote women’s rights and the Iraqi educational system. The Student Life office has arranged for Al-Suwaij to speak at NMC on Feb. 16.

WPP: How have conditions changed recently for women in the Middle East?

Al-Suwaij: The conditions for women are very different between one country and another. Some counties are advanced as far as women gaining their rights and some countries are really not. Unfortunately [women] are still asking for basic rights: things like being able to drive and being able to leave their house without the permission of a male guardian. In some other countries, we see that it is very advanced. We see women being able to participate in the political field, being able to work outside of the house, being able to vote, and being able to ask for her rights, and protect her rights. So it really varies between different places. In general, we see, if we’re talking about equality, they are still working hard on changing things.

WPP: In your mind, what are the biggest challenge facing women in Islam currently?

Al-Suwaij: The biggest challenge I see is women not being able to gain her full rights. There are always rules and regulations, and these rules and regulations can minimize women’s rights.  And these boundaries are not only religious but also tribal and cultural boundaries that minimize women’s rights and women’s roles in the society in these countries. But at the same time, there are a lot of woman initiatives and woman activists, who are working very hard on gaining these rights back.

WPP: Are there many risks for the women who choose to protest?

Al-Suwaij: Definitely. There are a lot of risks. These women are being subjected to violence, being subjected to discrimination in the work place or in other things. So you see these kind of things in this type of country.  There are many women in them who have been subject to violence and suspension from work.  For example, I have a colleague and a friend in Saudi Arabia who has been suspended from her work, simply because she participated in driving. Some women in Saudi Arabia decided to drive their cars and she was one of women who decided she wanted to be part of the group. In a very peaceful way, a group of women decided to drive their cars, and then she was suspended from her work for two years.  So she was staying home and unable to work simply because she asked for a simple right of hers.  This is just one example. In other places, women have been targeted. They have been killed or injured in one way or another, simply for asking for these rights.  So they are subject to violence, but yet they are determined to gain these rights. Also there are certain political parties and political movements, some are religious and some are not, who are trying to minimize women’s rights and roles, especially in the political arena.

WPP: What challenges have you run into in your efforts to promote women’s rights in Iraq?

Al-Suwaij: In Iraq, after 2003, things have changed. Women in Iraq now have the right to participate in the election by voting and being politically active. They are very outgoing and highly educated. They had many years of sanction and stuff like that.  In the past, for many women, their level of education went down because they could not afford to send their daughters to school. But at the same time, right after the fall of Saddam’s regime, we saw so many women activists going in the streets, working on women’s rights and asking for their rights.

There is a very remarkable group of women in 2003 that gained the quota of women in the government, which called for not less than 25 percent of women participation in the government. At the same time, there was a movement from one of the Islamic political parties; they wanted to change the family status law to an Islamic status law. So thousands, hundreds of thousands of women went to the streets and we organized and protested in front of every city council throughout the country at the same time every day to not have this law pass. And we succeeded at that. And we are still working with women in the capacity of building on democracy education, women’s rights, and many other things.

WPP: What do you think is the next step for Iraq now?

Al-Suwaij: Women being more involved and gaining more rights: participating. I would like to see the participation of women be not just a quarter, but go to 50 percent, because they represent more than 50 percent of the population. And I would like to see happening is having these women more involved in all aspects of life, and they have opportunities to do that.  At the same time, 25 percent participation is the highest percent in the whole region. In the first election in 2004, women were 32 percent [of voters].

The minimum was 25 percent, then the quota went up, because women participation in that election was really high. What I would like to see is more participation, more full rights and women involved in fields that they have not been involved with before.  For example, we now have women in the army, women in the police, and in the beginning, they were harassed because of that, but now I think it has become normal to see a policewoman. Women are highly educated there, so they need this kind of a push to open other doors.

WPP: How can students and Northern Michigan locals get involved?

Al-Suwaij: We have initiatives on many different college campuses, and this project is called Project Nur, and we always encourage students to be involved in support of these initiatives, not only in Iraq, but in other areas in the region, and helping women and youth activists in gaining their rights. We encourage students to do events related to what is really happening, so people over there can see the support, not only in their homeland, but also on an international level. There are a lot of violations of human rights, specifically on women’s rights, and I think people need to know that there are efforts happening to make that change on the ground, but also these initiatives need the support of people who have the freedom to do things, are able to be out there and speaking about these issues. So they need the support, not only from inside, but from outside as well.


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